After months of both anticipation and controversy, The Shack (based on William P. Young's 2007 bestseller) underwhelmed. While I won't be singing its praises or seeing it a second time, I can't come down too hard on it either since some seekers might emerge from the theater wanting to learn more about God. 2.5 out of 5.
SEE ALSO: The Shack & the Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment
Mack (Sam Worthington) is a dedicated dad with a troubled past. While on a family camping trip, Mack's daughter is kidnapped while he is distracted by a canoe accident involving his other children. Police determine that his daughter was murdered by a serial killer in a hunting shack, but do not find her body. Some time later, Mack finds a note in his mailbox asking him to come back to the shack where his daughter was killed. It is signed by "Papa," which is the name his wife calls God. A suspicious Mack tells no one about the note except his friend and neighbor, Willie (Tim McGraw), and goes to the shack while the rest of his family is away for the weekend. At first he finds no one there, but a man passing by invites him to walk. It turns out that the man is Jesus, and he leads Mack to a beautiful mountain cottage inhabited by "The Trinity:" "Papa," portrayed as a maternal woman (Octavia Spencer); the Holy Spirit, portrayed as a quietly mysterious woman named Sarayu; and Jesus himself. As Mack becomes acquainted with the Godhead, they lead him on a journey of faith and forgiveness.
Though I wasn't in love with this film for a variety of reasons, I still found pieces to savor. The family at the center of the story feels very real, and the movie was at times both charming and funny, such as when Mack's daughter Missy asks, "If God is always with us, why does he care if we're late for church?" The way Mack and family respond after Missy is kidnapped is portrayed with a believable degree of realism. It's also easy to appreciate Aviv Alush's portrayal of Jesus as a friend - he seemed easy to talk to and radiated love for Mack. Jesus is seen caring for Missy and others in Heaven and the image is both beautiful and powerful. The Shack has the potential to serve as a conversation starter about Christianity with those unfamiliar with the faith, or to get someone asking the right theological questions of Christian friends and pastors.
Unfortunately, The Shack tried to do too much in a two-hour span. There were so many themes that few ever saw resolutions, and so much going on that the story quickly became overwhelming. The narrative flashes both backward and forward in time, making it slow to develop and hard to follow. I personally had a problem sitting through some of the more intense moments (see Cautions about violence below) and strongly suggest sensitive viewers take this under consideration before seeing The Shack. It is also important to note: biblical purists will find fault with this movie. Many details of this story and the Trinity are contradictory to Scripture. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that God sees people as rainbow-colored blobs, yet that is a climactic scene in the film. This is a Hollywood interpretation of a God who says one-line zingers and dances to pop music alongside the Holy Spirit, not the holy God we know from the Bible (though that's kind of the selling point of Young's novel and the film - to demonstrate to those who find God impossibly distant that he is approachable and involved).
That glut of themes I mentioned earlier? Just a sampling includes: pain, forgiveness, trusting God, why God allows bad things to happen to good people, blaming God, how depression affects family members, healing, and repairing relationships among others. The Shack deals with spiritual themes and questions from beginning until the credits roll. Mack grew up regularly attending church; he responded to an altar call to confess the sin of being unable to protect his mother from his abusive father. We see Mack brutally whipped by his dad upon returning home for having announced this in church, and his dad recites a verse from Colossians as he whips him. When Mack tells his neighbor about the note, his response is simply, “Have you prayed about it?” We can assume that Mack has not prayed about it, however, because while he is still a church-goer, he explains, "Papa is too familiar for my taste."
As to The Big Issue: Yes, The Trinity is portrayed as three people. Nowhere in Scripture do we find the Holy Spirit embodied as a person. When Mack asks them the important question, "Which one of you… [is God]?" they respond in unison, "I am." God the Father being portrayed as a woman is addressed, and Papa explains that the white beard Mack expected God to have was that of Santa Claus. Later in the film, Papa is portrayed as an elderly man (Graham Greene) at the moment when Mack most needs a father figure.
Despite its problems, there is a lot of wisdom shared in The Shack. Mack accuses God of turning his back on those he loves - including Jesus when he died on the cross. But God says he never left him and never left Mack either. On Mack's journey to forgive his father and Missy's killer, God teaches him that though Mack is truly loved, evil finds its way into the world. That is where God can work "incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies." He just needs Mack's trust. Another poignant scene involves Mack and Sophia, the personification of wisdom. Mack is asked to cast judgment on criminals, then upon his teen children who are sinners themselves. Sophia insists that Mack choose one child to condemn to hell, but Mack says he'd sacrifice himself in their place. That is when Sophia makes the connection to God giving Jesus to die on the cross: "You judged your kids worthy of love even though it cost you everything. Now you know Papa's heart."
SEE ALSO: A Gentle Balance to the "Shack Attack"
RECOMMENDED FOR: People who are looking for a basic explanation of who the Trinity is; those looking to start a conversation about Christianity with their friends; people who enjoyed the bestselling novel.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Children, scriptural purists uncomfortable with extra-biblical explanations of God, people who are sensitive to scary images or children in danger.
SEE ALSO: The Shack: Movie Stirring as Much Debate as the Book
The Shack, directed by Stuart Hazeldine, opened in theaters March 3, 2017; available for home viewing May 30, 2017. It runs 132 minutes and stars Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Aviv Alush, Tim McGraw, Radha Mitchell, Alice Braga, Graham Greene and Sumire Matsubara. Watch the trailer for The Shack here.
Carrie Dedrick is Crosswalk.com's Editor for Family Content.
Publication date: March 1, 2017